The story of Black Beauty has captured imaginations since the publication of Anna Sewell’s novel in 1877. Over the years, there have been numerous film and TV adaptations of the book, and even a theater production. The latest movie version, which is exclusive to the streaming service Disney+, takes liberties with the original novel while still maintaining its spirit.
Like Sewell’s book, the movie is narrated by the horse who becomes known as Black Beauty, but the horse is gender swapped, enabling Kate Winslet to provide her voice. While there’s something a little hokey about an anthropomorphized horse telling tall tales about horse heaven, on balance, the gimmick works, helping the movie convey Beauty’s experiences and garner sympathy for her plight, something that’s also enhanced by Winslet’s emotional vocal performance. In this version of the story, which takes place in the present day, Beauty is a wild mustang born in the American West who’s rounded up with her herd and then taken in by John Manly (Game of Thrones’ Iain Glen), who runs a horse rescue.
John has no success taming Beauty until his teenage niece, Jo Green (Mackenzie Foy), comes to live with him after her parents die in a car accident. Jo is just as bereft and adrift as Beauty and the two start to form a bond that helps both heal — and John to domesticate the horse. While a majority of the movie is spent on Beauty’s time with Jo, after a devastating accident, Beauty is sold. The rest of the movie details her experiences with both kind and cruel owners. For every new owner who treats Beauty like a thinking, feeling being, there’s another who simply treats her as a means to an end.
Much like the original novel, the movie dips into issues of animal welfare, even briefly bringing up the mustang round-ups performed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. While the film certainly doesn’t hit viewers over the head with this, it’s exciting that for some younger viewers, the film could serve as an introduction to the topics of rescuing animals and the imperative to respect them and treat them with dignity.
On the whole, the movie isn’t doing anything revolutionary. Like many stories about the bond between a human and an animal, it tugs at the heart strings while showing the evolution of that relationship. If you’ve ever deeply loved and cared for an animal however, this will likely still make an impact. And fortunately, unlike some movies of this kind, Black Beauty doesn’t go out of its way to manipulate viewers’ emotions. Instead, there’s a gentle quality to the film as it touches on hard truths without delving so deeply into them that kids or their parents will be uncomfortable.
The movie also boasts warm performances by Foy and Glenn and lovely photography of everything from the open landscape of Beauty’s youth to modern-day New York City. So although Black Beauty isn’t a must-see, for many horse-loving kids — girls in particular — writer and director Ashley Avis has made a movie they’ll want to watch over and over again.